Business of Well-being

Internal Motivation - The Missing Part of Wellness Programs

Of the numerous wellness programs I've evaluated, most usually include one or more of these activities and benefits: weight loss classes or memberships, exercise facilities or memberships, printed healthy eating materials, financial incentives, healthy eating venues and more. But one thing is almost always missing: internal motivation.

It can make the difference between programs that fall short of weight loss and healthy eating goals, or ones that make a big dent in the obesity problems that face employees across the nation and around the world. It can complement existing programs and make them better. But without it, I seriously doubt much can change because people love food and drink and getting them to make changes is complex and difficult.

When people are motivated from within, they become committed to making up their minds, once and for all, "absolutely positively" (thanks FedEx) to take control of their eating and weight. Now, internal motivation is very different from external motivation.

Motivation from the outside includes financial incentives, rewards and even bets between co-workers and friends. Generally, external rewards are short lived, as people tend to stop their behavior change once they earn the rewards or win the bet. So let's focus on internal motivation, the most powerful motivation there is. A few examples:

  • To excel at work, we find motivation from within. While external motivation - salary, bonus, profit-sharing is important, the will to succeed comes from deep inside us, especially in jobs like teaching that don't offer high financial reward. We do it because we want to succeed.
  • We don't need external motivation to have a happy marriage. We want to have that. We want to love and be loved. We don't need to be incentivized to wantto be a good spouse.

We don't need external motivation to excel at playing a musical instrument or a sport. No one has to pay us to practice shooting baskets or strumming a guitar. We put in the time because we want to get good. Whether it's a happy marriage, raising kids, excelling at work or any other goal like these, we are all motivated from within.

Our culture instills in us a  strong desire to do well at work, have a great marriage, raise wonderful kids or be a rock star guitar player or singer. Eating is actually a lot more complex than any of these activities for most people. We eat numerous times every day - meals plus snacks. We often eat for the wrong reasons. We overindulge, eating way too much.

And we don't want to make sacrifices when it comes to food. Changing eating behavior, therefore, requires even more internal motivation than the examples I've given, because the temptation is there all day long to eat junk food. I would argue that without motivation from within, people aren't going to change their unhealthy eating habits, and the decades old problem of obesity in the workplace isn't going to improve materially.

I should know. I bet my business partner years ago who would lose 30 pounds first. It was pretty much a dead heat so money didn't change hands. It was a good example of external motivation. Of course, we both gained the weight back after the bet was over. We did so because we were not motivated from within.

But years later, I found internal motivation after a lot of soul-searching and asking myself: "I have a great life. Wonderful marriage. Great career. And on and on. Except I could not lose weight and keep it off. Why?" I finally reached my "aha" moment and the rest is history - losing 35 pounds and keeping most of it off for years. That event led to my current work -- motivating people to eat healthy. In our work, we motivate people to develop a burning desire to eat healthy in five ways, because people respond to different stimuli:

  • Positive: remind people of all the wonderful things they can do when at a healthy weight - sports, dancing, wearing stylish clothes, etc.
  • Negative: graphically show the dozens of diseases that afflict people who are obese, as well as 180 ways in which obese people suffer every day.
  • Shockers: show people the staggering amount of sugar they consume, what's in unhealthy foods and drinks, and then give them easy ways to replace unhealthy foods with delicious healthy alternatives.
  • Education: eye-opening facts, stats and trends shock people into the reality of what's happened to them and why they need to take control of their eating and health.
  • Money: the extremely expensive cost of being obese - hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime - may be the biggest motivator of all!

Since a company's healthcare costs involve both employees and their families, it's time to take some bold steps to improve outcomes in this area. Here's a simple example - one of many -- that has amazing results among most kids and adults. We do a chicken nugget dissection with kids and adults. We encourage them to break one in half, but not eat it. We ask them what the inside of a nugget looks like.

Hardly any say chicken. We've heard the same answers time after time: mashed potatoes, cement and mystery meat. We then tell them that chicken nuggets only have 19% protein, and generally have 35-40 other ingredients. We show them the list of ingredients. Many they can't pronounce. They don't know what most of those ingredients are.

For your knowledge, here's the list:

  • Food Starch - Modified
  • Salt
  • Hydrogenated Soybean Oil with TBHQ
  • Autolyzed Yeast Extract
  • Wheat Starch
  • Thiamin Mononutrate
  • Chicken
  • Niacin
  • Water
  • Riboflavin
  • Folic acid
  • Dextrose
  • Citric Acid
  • Wheat Starch
  • Corn Starch
  • Safflower Oil
  • Sodium Phosphates
  • Bleached White Flour
  • Mononitrate
  • Folic Acid
  • Yellow Corn Flour
  • Reduced Iron
  • Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate
  • Sodium Aluminum Phosphate
  • Monocalcium Phosphate
  • Calcium Lactate
  • Baking Soda
  • Dimethylpolysiloxane

Kids that see this demonstration have a universal reaction that demonstrates the essence of internal motivation: "Ewwwwwwwwwwww...that's awful...I'm not going to eat chicken nuggets anymore." Adults also have a universal reaction: "I didn't know that. We have to make changes." This reaction from people of all ages happens withinminutes of the chicken nugget demo.

And in our experience, it tends to last for a long time. They stop eating chicken nuggets because they don't want to put unhealthy foods and ingredients into their bodies. That's internal motivation. The bottom line: motivate people internally to want to eat healthy and the weight will come off where appropriate. Absent internal motivation, it's likely that people will not stick with wellness programs over the long-term in the area of weight control.

About the Author

Irv Brechner's company Eat Right motivates people to eat healthy, with videos, posters and digital content. Brechner presented their motivational approach to the American Society of Bariatric Physicians annual conference in 2014 and is involved in contributing to N.J. legislation regarding the prevention of obesity in children. Contact Irv Brechner 732-321-1924

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